Person of the Week: Katharine Graham

June 3, 2005 — -- For nearly 30 years, Katharine Graham was the publisher and moral compass of The Washington Post. During the Watergate years -- while her reporters slowly uncovered corruption at the highest levels of government -- it was Graham who stood firm and firmly behind them.

She died in 2001, but her contribution is no less diminished this week with the identification of former FBI official W. Mark Felt as the source known as "Deep Throat."

Graham expressed her initial concerns about the story to ABC News in a 1997 interview.

"Are we accurate? Are we being misled? Are we being led down the garden path? How do we know we're accurate? And fair? That was a big issue, fairness, because people thought we were tromping on the administration," she said.

In the first days after the break-in at the Democratic Party Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel complex, the Washington Post went out on a limb. With two young reporters, the paper was virtually alone on the story.

"She's the real hero in a story where there's ambiguity about almost everybody's role. She's the real hero," said Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporter who, along with Bob Woodward, broke the story of the Watergate break-in and consequently helped bring about the resignation of President Nixon.

"We knew that she would be there for us through thick and thin, and she knew that we would die before we let her down," said Ben Bradlee, the newspaper's former executive editor.

As the Post uncovered a trail of corruption that led to the White House, the pressure on Graham mounted. The White House was furious.

"I don't respect the type of journalism, the shabby journalism that is being practiced by the Washington Post," said Nixon Press Secretary Ron Zeigler at the time.

The government threatened to take away the licenses of the Post-owned TV stations. The value of the company's stock plummeted, and Graham believed the very existence of the paper was at stake.

"The pressure from the administration was so great. They really wanted to get even with us, and they wanted to harm us in any way they could," she said.

A friend warned Graham to be careful and "never be alone." But she refused to back down.

Woodward recalled an instance when Graham asked when the truth about Watergate would be revealed: "She looked at me and she said, 'Never?' Don't tell me never.' Now I left that lunch a motivated employee. But that wasn't a threat. That was a statement of purpose: 'Get to the bottom of it. Don't tell me never.' "

One of the Most Powerful Women in America

Graham was born to privilege. Her father bought the Post in the 1930s. Her husband ran the paper until he committed suicide in 1963. As a result, Graham suddenly stood at the helm of one of the country's media giants.

"Of course it was difficult because I didn't know what I was doing," Graham said. "I was stumbling around, learning and making mistakes."

In time, the paper would thrive under her leadership, and she would come to be called one of the most powerful women in America.

In 1974, after the revelation of incriminating White House tape recordings, Nixon resigned the presidency. The reporting of the Washington Post had withstood the pressure and the scrutiny. When it was over, Graham wrote a letter to her young reporters.

"She said, 'Keep loving, keep laughing, keep plugging.' Always the newspaper person," Woodward said.

Graham would later say she took no joy in the role her newspaper played in bringing down a president.

"It was a complete perversion of the democratic process and democracy was really in danger," said Graham. "We were doing what we should have been doing, which was to print the stories that they were trying to cover up."

Graham never knew the identity of Deep Throat. She once asked Woodward who it was and then said, "No, don't tell me."

Elizabeth Vargas filed this report for "World News Tonight."

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